Rotunda Ramblings: Special Session Recap

The road to the end has been long and bumpy, but the 2015 legislative package is finally done.

The high expectations that were held entering the session were not quite met, but many notable pieces of legislation were finally complete. Minnesota Soybean Growers Association (MSGA) played a big part in many of those.

Lawmakers needed a portion of two calendar days to complete the one-day special session called by Dayton for June 12. The House and Senate passed six bills on to the governor before adjourning the session sine die in the early morning hours of June 13.

The most controversial piece of legislation was the omnibus environment, natural resources and agriculture policy and finance bill sponsored by Rep. Denny McNamara (R-Hastings) and Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm), HF4/ SF5. The House and Senate voted to pass the omnibus environment, natural resources and agriculture policy and finance bill early Saturday morning but not without some political arm twisting.

The intense legislative action saw the bill fail in the Senate by one vote in its first attempt to pass the bill, but later reconsidered the vote and then amended the bill. This removed language that eliminated the Pollution Control Agency’s Citizen’s Board and repealed a provision that exempted sulfide mining from solid waste rules.  However, the House refused to agree to the Senate position and instead inserted an amendment to have the bill match what was agreed upon by legislative leaders in order for Gov. Mark Dayton to call the special session.  Ultimately it took the Senate three votes on the $780 million legislation before accepting the original bill by a vote of 38-29. The House then passed the measure 78-47.

Republican’s hopes for an almost $2 billion tax cut did not materialize, due to the lack of a tax bill. Therefore, property tax relief measures that MSGA had worked for did not become a reality. Those measures did pass the House and will be on the table next year if lawmakers complete a tax bill.

Omnibus Agriculture Finance Bill (S.F.5)

The Omnibus Agriculture Finance Bill funds a number of programs at the Department of Agriculture and Board of Animal Health. The bill the Department of Agriculture is funded at $85.8 million for FY 2016-2017 while the Board of Animal Health is funded at $10.7 million of FY 2016-2017. Some important provisions include:

Agriculture Research, Education, Extension, and Technology Transfer Grant Program

$4,500,000 for FY2016 and $8,500,000 for FY2017. The base was established at $8,500.000 and therefore that amount will carry forward into future biennium 2018 and beyond. These funds are in addition to the $42.9 million annual appropriation that the University receives in the “State Special for Agriculture,” funded in the Higher Education bill.

 The new grant program appropriation funds grants for research, agriculture rapid response for plant and animal diseases, agricultural education programs, and farm business management. The grant funding would focus on the following four areas:

  • Agricultural research and technology transfer needs at the University of Minnesota, research and outreach centers, the University of Minnesota Veterinary School, the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, the Stakman-Borlaug Center, and the Minnesota Agriculture Fertilizer Research and Education Council.
  • Of the base amount $600,000 is directed each year for Agricultural rapid response, which is a program staffed by faculty from the University of Minnesota and experts in the field aimed at responding to urgent issues affecting plant and animal diseases , such as avian influenza.
  • Of the base amount $2.0 million is directed each year for Agricultural education, through the Minnesota Agriculture Education Leadership Council for farm business management and mentoring programs.

There is a new Advanced Biofuels Production Incentives program which was pushed primarily by a coalition, including the Wood Products industry and Minnesota Corn’s incentives program allocates $500,000 for FY2016 and $1,500,000 for FY2017. This provision provides production incentives for the following three industries:

  1. Advanced Biofuels: Renewable fuels made from non-food materials such as corn stover and wood waste, including non-ethanol biofuels such as bio butanol.
  2. Renewable Chemicals: Compounds produced from forestry or agricultural materials that can be used to produce plastics, solvents, cleaning supplies, and personal care products.
  3. Biomass Thermal Energy: Uses materials such as wood or agricultural residues to supply sources of commercial or industrial process heat.

Agricultural Growth, Research, and Innovation Program (AGRI) – $10.2 million for FY2016 and $10.2 million for FY2017.  This appropriation is for livestock investment grants, developing new markets for Minnesota’s producers, assisting in value added agricultural business, and developing urban agriculture.

Marketing Ag in Cuba–$100,000 for FY2016. This is a one-time appropriation to the Commissioner of Agriculture with the purpose of establishing contacts and business connections in Cuba and of gaining a better understanding of how these new business opportunities will align with new federal trade regulations.

Livestock Industry Study–$25,000 for FY2016. This provision gives the Commissioner of Agriculture the responsibility of conducting in-depth research on the condition of Minnesota’s livestock industries over the last ten years, and to investigate the causes of the state’s successes and challenges. The Commissioner will be required to present the findings and recommendations from this analysis to the legislature by February 1, 2016 at the latest.

County Fairs – $1.0 million for 2016 and $1.0 million for FY2017.  This appropriation is divided equally to each of the state’s county fairs to preserve and promote Minnesota agriculture.

Emergency Funding for Avian Flu

Legislation, H.F.2225, was signed into law to provide emergency funding of nearly $900,000 to aid the state’s response to the avian flu epidemic, which has now stricken more than 70 farms in 19 Minnesota counties.

Avian flu, first detected in the state in March, has now affected nearly eight million birds in Minnesota, about 8% of the state’s annual turkey production. This loss has been devastating to farmers, and there is growing concern that the virus could continue to spread.

This bill provides a one-time appropriations to the Commissioner of Agriculture and the Board of Animal Health in FY2015 to address this problem. Any federal money received in FY2015

through FY2017 by the Commissioner of Agriculture or the Board of Animal Health to address the avian influenza is appropriated in the fiscal year when it is received.

  • 514,000 to the Commissioner of Agriculture for emergency response activities that are not covered by federal funding.
  • $379,000 to the Board of Animal Health to fund emergency response activities that are not covered by federal funding.

The Agriculture Finance bill (H.F. 846) also provides approximately $20 million for additional funding to the Department of Agriculture and Board of Animal Health to address Avian Influenza efforts in the state.

  • $3.6 million to the Commissioner of Agriculture to purchase necessary euthanasia and composing equipment and to reimburse costs incurred by local units of governments.
  • $1.85 million to the Board of Animal Health to purchase necessary euthanasia and composing equipment.
  • $103,000 to the Commissioner of Health for costs incurred relating to avian flu emergency response activities.
  • $350,000 to the Commissioner of Natural Resources for sampling of wild animals to detect and monitor avian flu.
  • $544,000 to the Commissioner of Public Safety to operate the State Emergency Operation Center in coordination with the statewide avian flu response activities.
  • $10 million to the Department of Agriculture’s RFA Loan Program to assist poultry producers affected by avian flu.

Omnibus Environment and Natural Resources Finance (S.F.5)

Riparian Buffer Requirements – Throughout the legislative session Governor Dayton continued to push for a one size fits all buffer strip proposal that would have required all waterways in the state be buffered with strips of grass or other cover 50 feet wide.  In the waning hours of the legislative session, the governor, legislative leaders and conferees came to a compromise.  This agreement was comprised of the following:

By November 1, 2017, buffers are required along public waters (existing law) at the greater of:  a 50-foot average width, a 30-foot minimum width, or state shoreland standards.

By November 1, 2018, buffers are required along public drainage systems (existing drainage law) and may be applied to private ditches “within the benefited area of public drainage systems”, at a minimum of 16.5 feet, or an alternative water quality practice as approved by the Board of Water and Soil Resources.  Exemptions are made for land:

  • enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program;
  • used as a public or private water access or recreational use area; 
  • covered by a road, trail, building or other structure;
  • regulated under a NPDES/SDS permit;
  • that is part of a water-inundated cropping system; or
  • that is in a temporary non-vegetated condition due to ditch or field maintenance.

Soil and water conservation districts are to assist landowners with implementation of buffer requirements ($22 million from the Legacy Clean Water Fund for this purpose).

MPCA Citizens Board – The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens Board is repealed. The 48-year Citizens Board makes decisions on rules, environmental review and controversial regulatory issues.

Feedlot Truck Wash – Provides that a feedlot operator does not require an MPCA permit to store and land-apply wastewater from the operator’s private truck wash if the operator stores and applies no more than 100,000 gallons/year and follows MPCA requirements.

Cost Analysis of Water Quality Standards – Requires the commissioner of management and budget to contract with a nonstate entity for an analysis of costs of recently adopted or proposed changes to water quality standards and rules and specifies the requirements of the analysis.

Independent peer review of Water Quality Standards – Changes the requirement for an independent peer review whenever the PCA proposes changes to water quality standards. The new language would not require such a review. It allows the agency to call for an external peer review or to “state the reason” such a panel will not be convened;

Self-Reporting of Environmental Violations – Clarifies the language regarding self-reporting of environmental violations, which would require the PCA to delay enforcement for 60 days rather than the 90 days in the original bill. The new language specifies the provision applies only to “minor violations” that do not cause serious harm to human health or the environment.

Omnibus Capital Investment Bill (H.F.2)

The House and Senate passed a more than $370 million bonding proposal early Saturday morning that would fund upgrades at a pair of food safety labs, flood mitigation and disaster relief projects and help complete renovations to the State Capitol that are in full swing.  It features roughly $163 million in general-obligation borrowing and $140 million in trunk highway bonding for unspecified road projects across the state.  Key projects of note include:

  • $18 million toward the replacement of a University of Minnesota veterinary isolation facility.
  • $8.5 million for the Willmar Poultry Testing Laboratory.

Omnibus Legacy Bill (H.F.5)

The legislature approved the Omnibus Legacy Bill that distributes Minnesota’s legacy funds for the upcoming biennium Friday afternoon, voting 116-6 to pass the legacy omnibus bill, HF5/ SF1.  The bill would appropriate $540 million to be allocated in the following manner:

  • Clean Water Fund:                            $228.3 million
  • Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund:       $124.8 million
  • Outdoor Heritage Fund:                     $97.8 million
  • Parks & Trails Fund:                           $89.3 million

Those funds were created by the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment in 2008 to benefit the environment, arts, parks, trails and other state resources.

Among the appropriations is money needed to fund the buffer initiatives Gov. Mark Dayton has called for to reduce water pollution around the state. The bill would appropriate $11 million each year of the biennium for payments to give Minnesota’s 89 soil and water conservation districts a $100,000 per year increase in its base funding. The remaining money would be available for matching grants based on county allocations to the SWCD’s.

In addition, the Department of Agriculture received $13.7 million in Clean Water Funds.  Included in that amount is $2.5 million of the departments Agricultural Water Certification Program.

Lawmakers also passed the $17 billion omnibus K-12 education finance bill; the omnibus jobs and energy bill; the $540 million omnibus legacy bill; a $370 million capital investment bill; and a revisor’s bill that makes technical fixes to legislation where needed.  

The 2016 Legislative Session is scheduled to begin on March 18, 2016.